In a case that was widely reported in local media, the City Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) narrowly allowed installation of 45 photovoltaic solar panels on a historic home at the corner of Mission and Eagleland. 32 of these panels will be on roof surfaces that are not easily seen from the public right-of-way, consistent with most installations approved by HDRC in King William and other historic districts. Because the house is on a corner lot, however, 13 panels will be visible from Eagleland, and these panels have been a source of controversy.
For the record, we present statements by Mickey Conrad, architect and chair of the KWA Architectural Advisory Committee, and by former state representative Mike Villarreal, owner and resident of the house. As this newsletter goes to press, we understand that the HDRC will discuss guidelines for solar installations in historic districts at their February 17 meeting.
Technology Enhances Our Neighborhood
My family recently applied for city authorization to install solar panels on the back and side of our home – a request opposed by the KWA management and Architectural Advisory Committee. I would like to explain the situation from my family’s perspective.
We chose to live in King William because we love the natural beauty and design of old homes and neighborhoods. We care not only about preserving that inherent beauty, but also about breathing new life into our home and bequeathing it to our children.
We bought our first home in King William nearly 20 years ago. It was a serious fixer-upper. We did nearly all the work ourselves. This was before we had children. Two years ago, we sold our family home for another house on our block that had been boarded up for about a decade. We spent the first year living in the back yard apartment while our home went through a significant restoration. We told the kids that it was going to be fun, just like camping! Our 100-year home is now full of life and once again creating family memories.
The history of life in King William is one of adaptation and change, as new people come in, appreciating, yet also adapting historic homes for modern needs.
The goals of historic preservation and solar energy production can be mutually supportive. For homeowners in historic homes, every dollar saved on energy bills can be used for further restoration. On the flip side, if older neighborhoods cannot access solar energy, the cost of historic designation becomes higher and these neighborhoods become unaffordable.
The King William board and membership should revise its architectural committee’s current practice of opposing solar energy projects that fail to meet its minimum visibility standard. In our case, the KWA argued that solar panels must be made minimally visible, which is an admirable position. Their stance did not fully consider solar energy production concerns, however, and I think it went too far. I believe that the KWA policy does not reflect the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Historic Rehabilitation, nor the City of San Antonio’s existing policy, which recommends balancing concerns for visibility with solar energy production.
Such a policy would allow solar energy panels that are (1) located on the rear or side of a home, (2) respect the slope of the existing roof-line, (3) hug the roof-line, and (4) mimic the color of the roof or are non-reflective black. The City’s Office of Historic Preservation recommended authorization of my solar panel system because it respected these requirements.
A vibrant historic neighborhood requires a delicate balancing act as new technologies emerge. Telephone and electricity wires a century ago altered the look and feel of our neighborhood, but carried modernizing benefits for a vibrant residential life. Similarly, I regard evolving solar technology as an essential and necessary option for 21st Century living. Responsible historic preservation – as regulated by national and city institutions – should guide the adoption of technology that enhances this neighborhood we all love.
- Mike Villarreal